Death of the cheery pessimist

County View

County View
John Healy

As recent newspaper articles have reminded us, it is all of 45 years since Michael Viney and his wife, Ethna, first came west among us, putting down deep roots in Thallabawn and keeping a national readership abreast of the ebb and flow of nature. The same articles made passing reference to Viney’s admiration for James Lovelock, the scientist, inventor and environmentalist who first introduced the world to the concept of Gaia – the theory of earth as a self-regulating system which, over time, would right itself of all the wrongs which the human species could inflict.
Occasionally referred to in this column in the past as a cheery pessimist, Lovelock was for many years a maverick scientist, whose Gaia theory took many decades to obtain even a modicum of acceptability. His theory was that earth is a self-regulating system that maintained and perpetuated the conditions for life on the planet. All the organic and inorganic elements of earth were closely integrated to form a single structure that could adapt itself to whatever changes were forced on it.
One of the first to warn of the depredation of global warming, he predicted that human activity had pushed Earth – resilient as it is – to its limits. For four decades, he had cautioned mankind to bestir itself to the dangers. He had good news, and bad news.
The good news was that Gaia had the ability to adapt and survive. The bad news was that it was already too late for the survival of the human species. All the talk of turning to renewable energy, of reducing carbon emissions, of reaching world agreement on climate change – all of that was too little, too late.
Lovelock was described as a man with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humour and a passion for nature. His hallmark was a cheery acceptance that the end was not far away. Enjoy it while you can, was his advice to his fellow humans, because it will soon be over. And with a twinkle in his eye, the then nonagenarian would add that global warming was never going to greatly bother him, personally.
Nor did it. James Lovelock died earlier this summer at his home in Dorset, on his 103rd birthday.
Following his death, there has been much discussion on how accurate were the forecasts he made 40 years ago. He had also laid out a four-point plan (which even his devotees had to admit was rather less than feasible) to counter the coming apocalypse. The first point advocated that we should all retreat to live in mega cities, to abandon those massive tracts of land which were no longer habitable because of unbearable heat, drought and famine, and live together in well run, orderly cities. Otherwise, he said, when a large part of southern Europe and Africa became Saharan, there would be mass migration to the cooler climates of Britain, Ireland, northern Europe, and Australasia – for those who could afford it.
He also advocated a complete switch to nuclear energy, no less damaging or dangerous, he said, than what we do now; that scientists should develop a mesh screen, like a giant sunshade, situated in space to shield us from the heat of the sun; and that, over time, artificial intelligence would replace human thinking, with enormous beneficial results for humanity.
None of those things ever came about. James Lovelock shuffled off the mortal coil, as cheerful to the last as he ever was. And Gaia continues to cope, to limp along as best she can, against a species bent on her destruction.